Deafy at the Fringe: changing the landscape for Deaf theatre

Chris Dodd in Deafy, Follow The Signs Theatre. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls,

It was one of those theatre collaborations that start, like so many others, at a closing night party in the wee hours (after copious drinks). And like so many set in Edmonton, it included the fateful line “we should do a play together for the Fringe!.”

Ashley Wright is recalling the cast bash — after a run of Jonathan Christenson’s Richard III at the U of A a couple of decades ago — where he first met Chris Dodd. They hit it off and become great friends (incidentally, that show is where they met Fringe director Murray Utas, too; Shakespeare is a great bonder).

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“One thing led to another,” says Wright. And the upshot was not just a Fringe show in 1998, though it started there.

Silent Words, a one-man show written by Wright and starring Dodd, performed simultaneously in spoken word and sign language, was a bona fide critical and box office hit, a Sterling Award winner remounted at Workshop West’s Kaboom! Festival and Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre.

A friendship, a theatrical team, and a theatre company had been born. And Follow The Signs Theatre would have a national profile and an activist impact on Canadian theatre Dodd and Wright couldn’t have predicted as the curtain came down that last night of the winter of Tricky Dicky’s discontent.

That Wright hears and Dodd is Deaf from childhood was no barrier.  “My mom’s mom was completely Deaf,” says actor/ director/ playwright Wright. “From a young age I’d learned how to communicate.” And Dodd, as audiences across the country have had reason to discover, is one of world’s natural communicators, on page, screen, and stage, in spoken English and ASL. He’s the founder and artistic director of SOUND OFF, Canada’s influential five-year-old Deaf theatre festival.

Deafy, the Dodd/Wright collaboration that Edmonton audiences finally get to see at the Fringe — live come Friday, and online starting Thursday — has a distinguished history, too. It got noticed, big time, at Toronto’s juried SummerWorks Festival in 2019. And plans for it, all cancelled by the pandemic, included the 2020 Edinburgh Fringe, an Ontario tour, and a Toronto production.      

Honed at SOUND OFF and Workshop West under Vern Thiessen’s mentorship, Deafy, as Dodd describes, is “a storytelling play, a mix of the humorous and the serious…. Some stories told during the play are inspired from my own life; others are based on events that occurred to a Deaf friend, or are common shared experiences of Deaf people.”

In Deafy, written by and starring Dodd and directed by Wright, we meet Nathan Jesper, a Deaf public speaker. And we follow his fortunes on the speaking circuit, his obstacle-riddled journey, and what it means to belong.

“In some ways it’s a direct follow-up to Silent Words,” says Dodd of Deafy, which unspools in spoken English, ASL, and subtitles (and in the fall will be the first play by a Deaf playwright ever published by Playwright Canada Press). “It shares a similar narrative structure, but it’s focused on a much different character in a very different situation….” He describes it, intriguingly, as “an enigma for the audience. “Things are not quite what they seem, and it’s up to the audience to crack the solution.”

“We’ve been waiting two years to get back to Deafy after SummerWorks in 2019. It’s been a long journey and we’re happy to finally have the chance to share this play again.” And it’s newly tweaked for the Fringe, with a Dave Clarke sound score and Sarah Karpyshin’s lighting design.

Dodd says he was “totally a theatre kid, since elementary school. I was in a Waldorf program; there was a heavy emphasis on the classics and Greek mythology and we did some theatre on the side.” He still remembers being in a play about Gilgamesh, playing a soldier building a wall, throwing his all into the pretending. As Wright says “Working with Chris is an entirely unique experience. And I am reminded each time we work together what an amazing and accomplished actor he is.”

There are lot of firsts in Dodd’s double-faced theatre career as an actor and a playwright. Not only was he the U of A’s first Deaf drama grad in 1998, he was the first Deaf student at Vic, Edmonton’s arts high school. And in addition to starting SOUND OFF Festival, the ever-expanding Deaf theatre festival that had a cross-country all-digital edition this year, Dodd continues his work as a consultant and dramaturge.

The isolating experience of the pandemic has tested the ingenuity and resourcefulness of all theatre artists. It’s been a double-edged experience for the Deaf, Dodd thinks. Please Remain Behind The Shield, “Deaf identity in the age of masks,” commissioned from Follow The Signs Theatre by Canadian Stage, thought about that (it premiered at SOUND OFF).

On one hand, as that half-hour play chronicled, it’s exacerbated the ways Deaf people are marginalized and excluded, by masks and social distancing. “On the flip side,” says Dodd, “because it forced everything to move online and become digital, the physical boundaries for participation became erased, and suddenly there were multiple opportunities for me to engage with theatres across the country….” SOUND OFF 2020, for example, featured not only national but international artists.

As Dodd has said, he hopes that the transition back to live theatre won’t mean the end of the digital advantages that narrowed the gap between Deaf and “mainstream” theatre. In an essay called “Moving To A Larger Stage,” for Theatre Alberta’s “Who Are We Now?” series, he wrote eloquently about the pandemic as a portal.

“We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Deafy runs at the Fringe, the Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre, Friday through Aug. 22. Schedule are tickets are at



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